Alex Binkley on GM foods

The Binkley Report

Alex Binkley is a foremost political and economic analyst, whose website is Readers will be aware that his columns in True North Perspective have foreseen political and economic developments in Canada. In this edition ...

Public concern about GM foods

is shaped by lack of knowledge

By Alex Binkley
True North Perspective

Image: Cover of Humanity's Saving Grace, a novel by Alex Binkley. Click to purchase at Amazon.caAn extensive public survey conducted for Health Canada in March found wide spread concern if not outright opposition to genetically modified foods, says The Strategic Counsel.

The $119,060 survey was intended to “to provide Health Canada with a more up-to-date understanding of Canadians’ attitudes and behaviours related to GM foods, but also to inform communications activities and specifically any areas of concern raised by the general public,” adds The Strategic Counsel, a prominent pollster.

It says that 61% of Canadians have mostly negative thoughts about GM foods while 26% are extremely negative. Meanwhile only 26% of respondents said they were comfortable eating GM foods and “just 22% support the development and sale of GM foods in Canada.

“Consumers’ initial response and reaction to the topic of GM foods is certainly not positive and clearly presents some formidable challenges for Health Canada communicators and policy-makers with respect to addressing the level of confusion, misinformation and generally low awareness and understanding that currently exists.”

The survey results should hardly be a surprise. Two decades ago when genetically modified crops first came into use, the seed companies and science community made no real effort to educate the public about the benefits of the technology even though there was plenty of queasiness about them back then.

“It is clear that, for quite some time, there has been and continues to be an information void on this issue, which has been rather successfully filled by the anti-GMO view,” says The Strategic Counsel.

There’s a relatively low level of scientific literacy among Canadians and “very little specific knowledge of GM foods, genetic engineering, bio-technology or even older practices such as selective breeding. There also appears to be minimal understanding of innovation in farming practices or the challenges that farmers and agribusiness face in producing higher volumes at reasonable prices, meeting changing consumer preferences, and getting food products to market quickly while also being increasingly attendant to sustainable agricultural techniques and practices.”

Folks, there neatly spelled out, is a big challenge facing the agrifood sector. Countless studies have found no health threats from GM crops and many agriculture benefits.

“At this time, consumers are not favourably disposed to GM foods,” the report points out. “It is clear that significant efforts to inform and educate Canadians would be required in order to shift views in a more positive direction.”

The depth of doubt about GM crops is such that “Communicating in any positive way on this topic will likely be met with strong and quite vocal resistance from the public and from anti-GMO groups in particular,” the report cautions.

Trying as several organizations are to highlight the regulatory, safety and approval process for GM crops “can to some extent ameliorate those who are either sitting on the fence on this issue or moderately opposed. However, the extent of likely pushback cannot be under-estimated.”

The negative reaction to GM foods is primarily an emotional response because most people know so little about them. The Strategic Counsel conducted focus group sessions across the country and found that “even as more information was provided over the course of a two-hour discussion, it became apparent that a more specific explanation of GM foods could be counter-productive unless communications are clearly and simply crafted, and focused on addressing a very specific set of questions or concerns that the public has on this issue.

“To date, views have been principally shaped by controversial media coverage, and any confusion or negative views which do exist are often reinforced by the ongoing activities of anti-GMO advocates and environmental groups. These groups appear to be quite adept at leveraging social media and playing into public concerns about corporate malfeasance, a theme that reoccurs in many recent opinion research programs.”

Not surprisingly, Monsanto appears to be the villain to many Canadians because it produces GM seeds tolerant to its herbicide Roundup. “For focus group participants in particular, Monsanto was frequently invoked when participants were asked to name those things/issues they most associate with GM foods.”

While the survey focused on GM foods, The Strategic Counsel said the results “are also relevant to understanding consumers’ views on the wider application of science and technology within the agricultural and food production and manufacturing sectors.”

For example, many consumers “believe that genetic modification is a process which does or could include injecting fruits, vegetables, animals and food products with potentially hazardous materials such as hormones, antibiotics, steroids or other product enhancers which then fundamentally changes the nature and composition of the product. The term Franken-food came up in almost every focus group in the context of discussions about GM foods, although many consumers clearly know very little about the actual science of genetic modification.”

The public’s lack of knowledge combined with a massive anti-GMO movement “presents a significant challenge for Health Canada in terms of being a credible, neutral regulator,” the Strategic Counsel said. Its decisions could be greeted with skepticism.

GM supporters need to educate the public about the rationale for GM foods, it says. About half of those surveyed said they didn’t understand why GM crops were grown in Canada. Consumers worry about unnecessary risks to their health.

They’re not impressed with arguments that genetic modification is vital to producing foods that are more affordable and makes agriculture more sustainable. Nor are they convinced they’re safe to consume.

“At the present time, most consumers view the marketplace for GM foods as one that has been created not to address consumer demand or evolving preferences, but principally as a means of increasing corporate profits.” A general mistrust of big business, and large agri-businesses and factory farms plays a major role in this attitude.

However in the grocery store, price comes first ahead of concerns about pesticides and antibiotics and growth hormones, which outweigh worries about GM foods.

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